The McDonaldization of TED

Wired looks at the spread of TED around the world:

Free online access is just one of two major initiatives that TED has undertaken to engage a wider audience. The other is fully physical and has equally changed the character of the organization. That initiative, called TEDx, began in 2008 as a way to bring TED-like gatherings to smaller communities. It quickly spread to cities and towns around the globe—1,300 so far, in 134 countries, hosting more than 800,000 people in total, many times more than have ever attended an official TED event. The video viewing I attended at the Bozeman library was not some random screening; it was an overflow simulcast of the inaugural TEDxBozeman, which had sold out its tickets in six days. Each event is required to show at least two videos from TED.com, but the rest of the speakers are in person, often local, creating a TED-style experience for places where “ideas conference” isn’t even part of the lexicon.

TED does place some restrictions on the independent organizers. The TEDx logo renders the x like an asterisk, with a tagline below that reads “x = independently organized TED event.” But in practice, TED has put its entire reputation in the hands of these organizers, if only because they’re so entrepreneurial and so plugged into their communities. These local showrunners recruit speakers unknown to TED central and coach them on how to present their ideas. The resulting one-day conferences draw huge crowds. For most of the world now, and even for most of the United States, these events are TED.

Chris Anderson (no relation to the editor of this magazine), a former media executive who has run TED since 2001, sees both TEDx and TED.com as in keeping with a larger philosophy of “radical openness.” But putting media online is a standard practice, whereas these satellite events have taken Anderson into entirely uncharted territory: He has given his nationally known brand away to thousands of complete unknowns, spawning independent TED events in cities and towns all around the world. Can “big ideas” really cover that much ground?

This piece praises TED for this move – here is the concluding paragraph:

As gauzy as this may sound, there really is some idea that underpins whatever it is that each of us does, and there’s some narrative (whether our own or someone else’s) that helps convey it to others. By bringing speakers out of their specialties, by teaching them to talk to everyone, TEDxes are helping speakers connect with audiences, and helping audiences in turn to connect ideas inside their own minds. That is, they’re adding to our store of stories—and it’s hard to think of a much better reason to get together than that.

I can’t help think of George Ritzer’s analysis of McDonaldization. As the headline for the article suggests, TED has become a franchise. And with franchising and a global spread, Ritzer argued these traits come to dominate organizations:

  • Efficiency – the optimal method for accomplishing a task. In this context, Ritzer has a very specific meaning of “efficiency”. In the example of McDonald’s customers, it is the fastest way to get from being hungry to being full. Efficiency in McDonaldization means that every aspect of the organization is geared toward the minimization of time.
  • Calculability – objective should be quantifiable (e.g., sales) rather than subjective (e.g., taste). McDonaldization developed the notion that quantity equals quality, and that a large amount of product delivered to the customer in a short amount of time is the same as a high quality product. This allows people to quantify how much they’re getting versus how much they’re paying. Organizations want consumers to believe that they are getting a large amount of product for not a lot of money. Workers in these organizations are judged by how fast they are instead of the quality of work they do.
  • Predictability – standardized and uniform services. “Predictability” means that no matter where a person goes, they will receive the same service and receive the same product every time when interacting with the McDonaldized organization. This also applies to the workers in those organizations. Their tasks are highly repetitive, highly routine, and predictable.
  • Control – standardized and uniform employees, replacement of human by non-human technologies
  • Culture – As a part of standardization, cultural hybridization occurs. As McDonald’s enters a country, consumer patterns are unified and starting with the food chains, local cultures are westernized.

Maybe TED is a bit different because it is about ideas and the content of the different talks could vary widely between Bozeman, Montana and Indonesia. This article also suggests the parent organization isn’t completely controlling everything on the other end. At the same time, I imagine attendees have some idea of what kind of product a TED conference is and they expect to have a particular kind of experience. What happens if the product at the local level, particularly when comparing a local TEDx conference versus the larger official TED talks, doesn’t compare? Even though the conferences are about ideas, do the ideas tend to clump together in certain fields or ways of viewing the world? The trick here is to balance a consistently good TED experience with new ideas that push attendees to see the world in new ways, all while avoiding becoming just another global brand or product.

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